Eliot hard at work.
Seven years earlier, Helen had read my father Eliot's hands when he and Mama visited, looking for land. Some say hands hold the map of our lives; that the lines of the palm correspond with the heart, head, and soul to create a story unique to each of us. Understanding the lines is an attempt to understand why things happen as they do. Also a quick way to figure out who might make a good neighbor. Helen and her husband, Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the Good Life, wanted young people around who would find the same joys in country living as they did. Their philosophy held the promise of a simple life, far removed from the troubles of the modern world.
"Very strong lines," Helen told Papa that summer of 1968. He had the deepest fate line she'd ever seen, and wide, capable hands. With hands like his, they could do anything. And such a nice-looking couple, too, young and clean-cut—Papa with his sandy tousle of hair, blue eyes, and straight nose, Mama's long, dark hair parted in the middle and kindly chestnut eyes. Shortly after that visit, my parents received a postcard from Helen and Scott offering to sell them the 60 acres next door. That's how we came to be back-to-the-landers on the coast of Maine.
It was 1968, and my parents moved from their home on the campus of Franconia College in New Hampshire, where my father had been teaching, to a makeshift camper on Cape Rosier. There was no mail service, no telephone, no electricity, no plumbing. The site of my future home was only a rise in the forest surrounded by spruce and fir, a cluster of birch and a large ash with its healthy crown of branches. "This seems like a good place to begin," Papa said, standing beside the tree. A self-taught carpenter and woodworker, Papa had never actually built a home before, but he had a book that broke down the process into an easy-to-follow plan; the easy part was there were no electrical wires or pipes to worry about, no refrigerator, washer, dryer, toilet, bath, or other appliances to buy. Food would be stored in the root cellar, accessed by a trapdoor from the kitchen, and the bathroom was an A-frame outhouse located in the woods at the edge of the clearing. And he was doing it all by hand. "Ever thought of getting a chain saw?" a visitor once asked innocently. "We'd rather do without and work more slowly in peace," Papa had replied in his affably militant manner. "A home of our own, at last," Mama sighed. Young and in love and both from blue-blooded families—"fahncy people," Mama liked to joke—my parents hoped to make their way without concern for Social Registers and Harvard degrees; they were shuffling off the shell of the past to grow a future of their own making. They didn't want to be hippies in the traditional sense, having no interest in drugs or communes; rather what appealed to them at the deepest level was the sentiment espoused in Walden by Henry David Thoreau: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately."
When I was born, Mama carried me on her chest or back with a cloth sling while she worked in the garden or the kitchen and carried drinking water the quarter mile from the spring to the house. After the gift boxes of Pampers from her parents ran out, she put me in plastic panties over safety-pinned cloth diapers that she washed by hand in the ocean and hung to dry in the sun, augmenting the diapers with the same dried peat moss we used for toilet paper in the outhouse. We had no savings account, trust fund, or health insurance policy, no house in town to fall back on. We were living the way much of the world actually lives—even if it seemed weird to some of the locals. On the plus side, we didn't have phone, water, or electrical bills, health insurance premiums, or a mortgage, car payment, or any other monthly payment for that matter. No one could come shut off our utilities and take away our home.
Later Papa would admit that choosing this lifestyle was hard. "We never had any doubts that homesteading was worth it, but at first we didn't realize self-sufficiency means 19th-century primitivism."
THE VEGETABLE GARDEN, the sign at the end of our drive said, ORGANICALLY GROWN, with the vegetables in season listed beneath: carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini. Past a gravel parking lot, the driveway thinned to a grassy lane curving around the orchard and down a gentle slope to a wood-timbered stand with wet-pebble shelves full of fresh produce for sale. Customers and farmworkers came and went as the surrounding gardens ripened beneath the pale disk of midday sun and cicadas thrummed regular as your pulse. On the rise by an overarching ash tree sat our small house, its slanted roof and front windows like eyes looking across the greenhouse and gardens below. By 1973, thanks partly to two newspaper articles about us and our unusual lifestyle, the farm stand was drawing ever more summer folk from the surrounding towns, bringing earnings of $3,600, which beat Papa's projections by $400. Papa saw in this success our financial security, albeit at the expense of our privacy. "They wanted to see how the freaks live, I suppose," Mama had told the reporter. Afterward she installed a PRIVATE sign on the front door to deter such curiosity in the future.
We Hear You!